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What Vintage Yearbooks teach us about Fashion, Art and Life

Posted on 15 September 2014

Edwardian yearbook photo
Edwardian yearbook photo

History books and old magazines are great resources.  Most people refer to them when trying to understand another period in time.  But I think the most under-used resources we have for time travel are vintage yearbooks.

 

 

I have a collection of high school and college yearbooks from the 1900s through the 1980s and I use them more than any other source I have to understand fashion trends.  But there is a lot more we can learn from vintage yearbooks.

 

 

You can tell a lot about people from yearbooks - you can see what other people thought of them from the messages they wrote, and unlike history books and magazines, that tend to highlight the lives of famous people or celebrities, yearbooks tell the stories of ordinary people.

 

 

So here are 5 timeless things you can learn about us as people just by looking through vintage yearbooks.

1. We like pretty things - There have always been popular girls - Let's face it, it's true, and yes, like it or not, they are usually the pretty ones. But you can also learn about vintage beauty through the hairstyles, makeup, and fashion of every decade by looking through yearbooks. They are perfect references for anyone interested in how vintage beauty has changed. Though the standards of beauty might change some,  It's funny how you can tell just by the photographs who the IT girls would have been!

 

Lauren Bacall's yearbook photo
Lauren Bacall's yearbook photo
Vintage College Women's club
Vintage College Women's club
vintage 1960's hairstyles
vintage 1960's hairstyles

 

Even the advertisements are fascinating - this one for Bernard's hair design shows students under the hair dryers in the 1960's.

 

Vintage High School Prom Queen and her court 1960's 
Vintage High School Prom Queen and her court 1960's

 

1920's college beauty queen
1920's college beauty queen

 

2. We like to belong! Band, Pep Squad, Cheer-leading, twirling, Student Government, and Drama - they've pretty much always been around! But the list of clubs has changed quite dramatically throughout the years - though there have always been language clubs, International clubs, and academic honor societies, we no longer see things like the "ham radio club" "happy Homemaker Club" "Womens' Rifle Club" "Stenographer's Club" "non-smoking club" "auto safety club" or "Most Prestigious women Club".

 

Vintage band photo
Vintage band photo

 

Kappa Kappa Gamma Sorority 1930's
Kappa Kappa Gamma Sorority 1930's

 

1930's college thespian
1930's college thespian

 

Twirlers
Twirlers

 

1920's Gym class
1920's Gym class

 

1930' drama club
1930's drama club

 

1930's girl's drama club
1930's girl's drama club

 

3. We are talented! - From the ethereal 1920's and 1930's Art Deco to the later decades of wartime, bebop and free love; every era has its own unique art style. There is probably no greater art resource to help understand what was happening at the time, than the illustrations by students found on the pages of vintage yearbooks! They may not be Picassos or Warhols, but they are pretty amazing.

 

1920's yearbook art
1920's yearbook art

 

Campus cartoon
Campus cartoon

 

Art Deco yearbook art
Art Deco yearbook art

4. We have always struggled with gender roles- Sometimes, it looks like gender roles have gone backwards. Just like the times they reflected, the images show the strength of women during the 1940's wartime with Forensic clubs, and women's rifle clubs and then the dramatic return to domesticity in the 1950's. But what HAS changed is that groups traditionally dominated by females like Yearbook, Drama, and student government,  are now much more equally distributed in numbers between men and women. Sports have also changed for the better, the vintage yearbooks generally show women only in tennis, gymnastics and "gym".

 

1940s Women's Rifle Club
1940s Women's Rifle Club

 

Student Government
Student Government

 

1960's yearbook staff
1960's yearbook staff

 

Girl's tennis club 1930's
Girl's tennis club 1930's

 

5. We like to party! A consistent theme in every yearbook is dancing! From pre-prom dinner dates to winter formals, they have been there from the beginning and continue to take center stage in most yearbooks!

 

 

I think the main reason I hold on to these vintage yearbooks is because I want the people in them to matter. I believe that as long as people like me find joy in flipping through the pages of these thick volumes of school history and care about the images of the people, now gone, they will somehow, be immortalized.  Because, when you get down to it, no one wants to be forgotten.

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